The false Gospel we grew up on

We Americans, and perhaps anyone in the modern world, grow up learning a false gospel. We're told that every day, in every way, things are getting better and better. Death, hardship and suffering, once universal, are becoming optional and should soon disappear forever. Life used to be hard and short, modern medicine has ended scourge after scourge, and works on the ones that remain. Work used to be hard, machines and labor saving technology make it easier and easier. The American version says we declared our independence, and afterwards tyranny has become unknown in our land.

But the Christian gospel says this is far too simple. With all the progress science and technology have made, we each carry seeds of evil in our hearts, and are all too prone to give in to it. Progress does end certain evils, but new evils come. And weakened by our lack of persistence because of the adversity we thought we’d never have to face, despair and apathy are strong.

An inadequate view of the gospel can combine with a willingness to believe in progress, and result in a Christianized view of progress. Hardship, pain and suffering are still temporary, a sign of being far from God. When we come to God, learn some basic discipleship, they should go away. If not, we wonder where we’ve gone wrong. What is the missing spiritual secret to make our life in Christ become effortless as it ought to be? This question fuels the susceptibility to health and wealth doctrines, we want to believe the life of faith should work like that. God is all powerful, and loving, so he can’t want us to suffer can he? I’ve never fallen for straight health and wealth doctrines, but I have yielded more than once to the analogous thinking — if I am seeking God’s kingdom, rather than my own comfort, my life should be nearly effortless. Yes, there may be awkwardnesses, outward hardships, but they won’t really bother me, will they?

There is a startling and surprising truth that leapt out at me from the pages of Scripture when I tried to take an overview of God’s work in history. God, standing outside time, has a plan to bring all things together, to sum up all things in Christ. Yet he has little urgency about this, in the way we imagine urgency. He had no hesitation to permit thousands of years for the accomplishment of his plan. Abraham was called, centuries later Israel was in Egypt, and Moses led them out. Then centuries in the promised land, until David came and established the kingship. David and Solomon’s golden age only lasted a short while, then centuries of mostly corrupt kings and prophets that few listened to. Then exile, and slow rebuilding after. Then more centuries and Christ the promised Messiah is born. He dies to accomplish our forgiveness, then returns from the grave, the Spirit descends and starts the church. And two thousand years later the church has still not reached every language group with the Good news. Why does this take so long? Was God caught off guard that the people following Moses would rebel? Or that the judges would call people back to God, and they would wander away again? Was he surprised that the church would so often become corrupt and lifeless, that no revival would ever be permanent, that open doors would close and churches would fossilize? No, he knew all this was coming, included it in his plan.

Yet we think, like other generations that have gone before, for us everything ought to proceed smoothly. We’ve learned to trust God, we’ve learned how to organize churches, how to do mission. Scriptures that speak of persistence, and long suffering were for the previous generations; we have learned, gotten it right. We have seen God at work and will never look back or go astray. Such thoughts show more pride in ourselves than real faith.

I’m convinced one lesson we ought to learn from the book of Revelation is that Satan and the powers of evil keep coming back, keep coming out on top time and time again. God protects and preserves his people, and will win in the end — but that end can be a long time away. God often employs plots where things get a lot worse before they get better. I believe in the life of faith through the centuries, the default is not the one who turns to God in such a powerful way that everything is forever changed there and then, but the default is the one who believes God’s word that all will be changed, some time coming but who knows when, and out of that hope finds the strength and persistence to keep hoping that the present mess is not permanent.

The Joy of the Lord

“The joy of the Lord is your strength.” We’ve all seen this many times laid over a beautiful image. What is the context?
The whole sentence: “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
The whole verse: “Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

What was the situation? Nehemiah had come to Jerusalem, and inspired the people to start rebuilding the wall. They had begun, Nehemiah called the people to persist despite the opposition. The work was not yet finished, but well under way. The people all gathered in Jerusalem and urged Ezra the priest to read the Law to them. Ezra and several Levites read and explained the Law to the people. And the people wept. Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites said this was a holy day, they should not weep but celebrate. Verse 10 is the key of Nehemiah’s exhortation — don’t mourn, celebrate.
Why did the people mourn? I’m sure they must have listened to the Law and thought of all the times they had not obeyed. They were reminded this is why their ancestors were sent into exile, failure to keep the Law. They heard “Do these things and you will live,” and thought “We have not done these things. We are doomed.”

But Nehemiah and the other leaders insisted they should not mourn but celebrate. And we in the New Covenant should rejoice even more.  Even the old covenant had grace, the message that God wanted to make a people for himself and would be with them. And the new covenant makes this clearer. God will do these things in our hearts so we will live. Don’t perceive the commands of God as things to do to be saved, but as the promises of God, what God will do in us because he longs to save.

Are we each alone?

“Each heart knows its own bitterness,
    and no one else can share its joy.”

There’s a lonely thought. What sad-hearted cynic penned this? Actually it comes from the Bible. Proverbs 14:10.

What is it saying? Are we each indeed alone? In human terms, we may well be. If we are each unique, if the modern proverb is right (and I believe it is) that there will never be another you, then it is inevitable that we will never know anyone exactly like ourselves. If this is what true companionship depends upon, we are indeed each alone. We are each unique in our experiences of sorrow and joy, the things that encourage and the things that perturb. Whose heart knows exactly the same notes of tragedy or of triumph? No one.

Some years back I attended a large family reunion. Early morning before it started I roamed our motel parking lot wondering whether I really looked forward to this event. I wasn’t typical, I was different. But then I thought how everyone probably had their own list why they are different, the things that other people don’t just get. I summed it up with the ironic thought, “We are each alone.” No one exactly like me. But I'm not the only one alone, we all are.

We can extend grace to one another, remembering to be kind when we do not understand. It is not easy to be misunderstood, we all know that. But can we ever really, fully understand? So let us strive to be kind when we do not understand, remembering when we were not understood. And let us turn our hearts, and encourage one another to turn our hearts towards God, the one who does know and does understand.

Our covenant making and keeping God

The maker and keeper of covenants, the one determined to redeem his people even though they don’t deserve it. Remember, the one who promised a new Covenant when his people broke the earlier Covenant (Jer 31:31,32). The one who promised to return all Israel, the northern kingdom as well as  Judah from captivity. (Ezekiel 37:19-22). So let us remember God as the keeper of covenants.

Life is difficult

“Life is difficult.” This first sentence of M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled is startling. Peck goes on to say that this truth, once grasped makes life simple. Probably an exaggeration to make a point, but the point makes sense. If you start out thinking life should be easy, you are disturbed and upset when it is not. If you start out thinking life is difficult, the difficulty can become easier to bear. Yes, this thing, this event in my life is awkward, annoying, gruesome, horrifying. But it’s not like I was singled out to be made miserable when almost everyone else has it easy. I can see embracing this truth could make you more inclined to gratitude, to appreciate what is good rather than angrily critique what is not perfect.

I am not totally shocked by the concept that life starts out difficult. But I have often felt the expectation that it should become easy. Such is the notion of progress we’ve all grown up with. Technology is getting better and better, so life should be getting easier and easier. A new software comes along, we’re excited. Wow, in just a few clicks we can get something that took hours by typing before. But when something comes up that is still complicated? They didn’t think through this part. I hope the next version makes this part easy.

In the spiritual life, there is a similar view. God has saved us, brought us into his kingdom; if we really understood the Gospel, if we just have enough faith, if we learn to pray correctly, read Scripture correctly, do something else correctly, all should be well. No major difficulties left in life since God is with us.

But in the implications of the Gospel, in the calling of Jesus to die to ourselves, take up the cross daily as we follow, there is a clear reminder that life with God still remains difficult, even despite all the ways he has blessed us. He blesses in part, and leaves us to wait, to follow through awkwardness and pain, to come to him with our heart agonies that may still remain agonies after we pray, the answer “not yet, not yet. My grace is sufficient for you.”

Cursing Gravity

“Cursing gravity
You can disdain gravity all you want, call out its unfairness, seek to have it banned.
But that's not going to help you build an airplane.”  Seth Godin.

It does seem what God often chooses to do is to leave a limitation in place, to permit and require us to learn to cope, endure, even thrive in its presence.

The limits of anger

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. (James 1:19-20)
A word many in our time need to hear, I think. Contemporary politics, both right and left wing, seem shaped by the belief that pure and uncompromising anger against wrongdoers on the other side is what is most needed.

A similar perspective from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains ... an unuprooted small corner of evil. 

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.” 
God's truth will illumine many falsehoods, the ones inside us and the ones inside others. Let us oppose falsehood, seeking God's grace to constrict it within us; praying for our opponents that God would enlighten them.